AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Pull-Ups, Biology, and Our Sexist Society

Men and women are different, right? Guys have more testosterone, which leads to greater muscle mass, facial hair, deeper voice, and greater height. Women have more estrogen, which leads to the development of characteristics like wider hips, and breast development. Having less testosterone means it is harder to gain strength, but not impossible. Anyone can, with the proper training regimen  increase their strength, regardless of sex. This, however, goes against what New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope writes in her article Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups. In it, she cites a study in which

 Three days a week for three months, the women focused on exercises that would strengthen the biceps and the latissimus dorsi — the large back muscle that is activated during the exercise. They lifted weights and used an incline to practice a modified pull-up, raising themselves up to a bar, over and over, in hopes of strengthening the muscles they would use to perform the real thing. They also focused on aerobic training to lower body fat.

According to the study, only four of the seventeen women were able to do one pull-up at the end of the study. I, along with several hundreds of people who have posted angry comments on this article, have several issues with this study, and with the title of the article.

First, they focused on exercises that would strengthen the biceps and latissimus dorsi. My question is, what about the deltoids and trapezius muscles, and the core muscles in the abdomen, and grip strength? All of these come into play to some extent in a pull-up.

Second, I know from personal experience that using an incline to work your way up to pull-ups, often called a supine row, does not work.  I tried this for months and still could not do a pull-up. What did work was jumping over the bar and lower myself slowly (this is called negatives), and using resistance bands to hold whatever weight I could not support while doing a full pull-up. Now, I can do pull-ups. And, when you really think about it, a supine row uses the same muscles but the movement is in no way similar, so it doesn’t make sense to see it as a “toned-down” pull-up for beginners.

Taken by Amber Karnes
2010 CrossFit Games; Women did pull-ups with a 14 lb vest.

Third, how in shape were these women? This was not made clear in the article, and obviously, even after six months to a year, a morbidly obese woman may not be able to do a pull-up.  I think the issue with the study and the article comes down to two things: bad journalism and bad science.  When a 17 year old AP Biology student is able to poke a bunch of holes in your argument and find a bunch of flaws in your experimental procedure, the competence of the individuals involved comes into serious question.

So, readers, can YOU do a pull-up? Do you know any females that can do pull-ups? And, if you were to run the experiment, what would you do differently?


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  1. henroids

    Well I can’t do a pull up, but I know some women who can do 10. I may be a male but that doesn’t mean that I am athletic and can out pull up a women. The marines seem to be on the same page as Tara Parker-Pope though. According to the marines thought that changing the physical fitness test for female marines to include pull ups would make it to challenging. But there is a difference in males and females when it comes to exercise and brain function. According to there is more testosterone produced in the male brain after exercise, which has an effect on how the brain changes from exercise, but this article also states that men don’t necessarily benefit from exercise more than women do.

  2. leahna

    Though there are differences between men’s and women’s brains (, it’s very controversial to do research on what the different sexes can do better.

    It’s impossible to make generalizations of what one sex can do better than the other because there are always exceptions to every rule (women who can do pull-ups, men who are better at humanities, women who are really good at math). The best thing is for people to just avoid doing this research all together and just accept you can’t generalize based on gender.

    And no, I can’t do a pull-up, but it probably has to do with my lack of athleticism, rather than being a girl.

  3. saysquad

    This article is very interesting. Even though women are not physically as strong as men, they have stronger immune systems. For more information on this check out the link below:

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